What You Think Is What You Get:  An Introductory Textbook for the Study of the Alexander Technique, by Donald L. Weed (Third Edition, ITM Publications, Bristol, UK, 2004)

I wish I understood this book well enough to review it.  The Wikipedia article on Alexander Technique is currently flagged, “This article may be confusing or unclear to readers.”  Much the same could be said for the book, though I have to say that having read the book makes the article, if not clear, at least familiar.

What You Think Is What You Get is a keeper; it’s just not for beginners, despite the word “introductory” in the title.  I would not have read very far if I had not already seen the Alexander Technique in action.  However, not only do I know how much it helped Janet with her overuse injuries, but I’ve observed several classes and even had a few short lessons myself.  Janet’s Alexander Technique teacher studied under Donald Weed, and her classes are nothing less than remarkable.  Who would have thought that a gentle touch and the suggestion that the student relax a certain shoulder muscle would suddenly make his singing voice deeper and richer?  Or that an almost imperceptible postural change would make a pianist’s music come alive?  Or that being asked, “Do you really need to contract that arm muscle to help you walk across the room?” would visibly improve my walking as well as relieve arm pain I’ve had for years?

There’s no question that the Alexander Technique can have an amazing effect; the problem is hanging onto the changes, and being able to initiate them outside of class.  Hence my desire for the book.  But it’s not a how-to manual, at least not in any form I can fathom.

Nonetheless, I’m making progress.  One idea that Weed stresses repeatedly is the importance of experimentation, observation, and evaluation, and that, on top of my experiences with Janet’s teacher, has let me to a much greater awareness of what my body is doing, and how my mind can affect my muscles.  I can relieve some of my neck and shoulder tension merely be remembering the teacher’s admonition, “There are seven bones in your neck; don’t move as if they were fused.”  I used to think it required heavy massage to get a tight muscle to relax; now I can sometimes achieve the same effect with a mere touch—more a reminder—and some mental effort.

The question of what muscles are really needed to perform an action turns out to be one of the more significant ideas:  many of our muscles were designed in pairs, so that contraction of one pulls an arm (say) one way, and contraction of the opposing muscle pulls it back the other way.  All too often—and I see this in myself—we are actually firing both muscles at once, so that in order to move in one direction we must work twice as hard, first to overcome the opposing muscle and then to achieve the intended motion.  Even when we’re standing still we often engage muscles that are totally unnecessary.  I would hope that all this extra work would at least burn more calories, but apparently the more significant effect is to make us stiff, restrict our motion, and inhibit a ready and reasonable response to the environment.

My greatest take-aways from What You Think Is What You Get:  Increased awareness of how my body is working, knowledge that the conscious mind can correct unconscious habits, and a willingness to experiment and to attempt to improve situations that I thought were merely “the way things are.”

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Edit
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Fascinating. Never, ever heard of it before. Is it something modern medicine dismisses, or embraces?

Posted by Eric on Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 8:13 pm

The reaction of the medical establishment is probably mixed. I do know that none of the many doctors Janet saw for her problems suggested it. My own doctor, whose approach to medicine seems to be overly influenced by the pharmaceutical companies, would probably roll his eyes. But it's well-respected in performing arts circles.

Hopefully Janet will chime in here and correct me if I'm wrong.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 9:50 pm

I'm chiming! Sorry, life has been too busy to look at blogs much. I'm afraid I can't help all that much. It is well-respected in the art world, but I have no idea in the medical world. It's not really medicine either. It's actually nearly as frustrating to have Alexander lessons as it is to read the book (I'm guessing - I haven't read the book). For two years I kept asking "but how do I do this at home?" and "How do I keep this?" and the answers were as frustrating as "You don't DO something you stop doing something." and "Don't keep it, throw it away and find it again." I finally stopped asking those questions and just tried to immerse myself in the ideas, as frustrating as they were. I still feel like I know nothing, but I am a different person and think about the body differently than I did three years ago, and some of the changes are rather significant and for the better. I still don't know what to think of it, but I think there's something to it!

Posted by IrishOboe on Friday, February 25, 2011 at 10:17 am

Pretty much most medical doctors know nothing about it. A study on Alexander Technique has been published in the British Medical Journal in Aug. of 2008 that featured pretty remarkable results on lower back pain. (a BMJ youtube video exists.) The improvements of A.T. are in keeping with the anatomical structural improvements of traditional medicine; in many ways A.T. is a way to learn "living anatomy." An A.T. teacher's analysis of seeing body language would agree with a gait lab analysis.
But the "how-to" of learning & practicing A.T. uses teaching skill; people are "learners" rather than "patients" and practicing is a skill that doesn't work unless you do it.

Perhaps it would help to imagine A.T. as a process of initiating movement. It also works to tap the unknown for new information about how you think, respond, adapt & perform goals.

Thanks for your review and fascination with Alexander Technique.

Posted by Franis on Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 11:50 am

Thank you for commenting, Franis. I'm looking forward to perusing your site.

Posted by SursumCorda on Saturday, August 20, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Thanks - The blog is written for those who know something about it. There's more than you probably want to read on my website,
Thanks again for reminding me that I hadn't been back to that the Alexander Technique page on Wikipedia to tend it for awhile. The first parts of that page often get edited by well-meaning writers who know little about the subject. They imagine that editing needs to happen because they have trouble understanding the writing - when it's really that they don't know the subject.

Posted by Franis on Sunday, August 21, 2011 at 6:35 am
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